Impulse, Notion, Muse: Three ways we respond to events, and how to identify them

Amber Case
9 min readNov 20

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Three ways of reacting to stimulus. Image by Michael Zargham x mj5.

Have you ever read a post online that made you extremely upset, then found yourself resorting to negative activity (flame wars, listless scrolling, etc.) because of it? Or seen a movie that completely inspired you with a new project idea — but then a week or two later, realized that your drive to actually create it had dissipated?

We often experience responses like these. Without a way to categorize these feelings it’s difficult to put our finger on what’s happening internally. Or learn how to understand how to get out of these mental states and have better clarity.

Around 2014, I was spending a lot of time in this zone, and it often left me feeling down. I ended up stumbling into a lovely webcomic called “The Muse Mentor”. Beautifully written and illustrated by Amy King, it told the story of a person who had “Notions” about the world but wanted to do something more about them. She wanted to become a Muse. In this story, Muses were epic enough to be a different social class. Notions were consistent but uninspiring, while Impulses were seen drinking and caving into their cravings.

Amy King’s The Muse Mentor Webcomic

The comic unexpectedly inspired me to understand how I was dealing with my own thoughts. I realized that I could apply it to all sorts of things. It even helped me to plan the course of my personal life. It began with being honest with myself about how I felt in a moment of inspiration, or when experiencing a new idea.

It’s easy to make mistakes when we don’t recognize that our judgments are affected by our emotional responses. Rather than suppressing our emotions, we can acknowledge their effects and take them into account when making decisions.

Esteban (a Muse) dialogues with Mona (a Notion) who is fearful of hanging out in a coffeeshop traditionally associated with Muses.

The most interesting part of this webcomic was the distinction between modes of engaging with the world. The comic had each of these reactions almost entirely occupying their own universes and local businesses, and the comic was about how these separations were not only arbitrary, but capable of intermingling harmoniously!

Let’s look at each of these in detail.

1. Impulse

The Impulse Plane is purely reactive. We might associate it with low impulse control, immediate gratification, and acting without considering the consequences.

We might call this a one-dimensional understanding.

It’s akin to when we grab a late-night snack despite not being hungry, or binge watching shows, not having fun while doing it, yet not being able to turn away. An Impulse engages the part of the brain which reacts without thinking. It’s our most basic plane of experience, and it might come out when we’re overwhelmed, haven’t eaten in a while, or let our basic human instincts take over. For example, a hangry person is operating in their impulse mode.

2. Notion

Have you ever played a video game and said, “this game is fun to play, I’d love to make one!”? The Notional Plane represents popular ideas that encourage a surface-level understandings and imitations. Notions are characterized by imitation, aesthetics, and surface attributes. This mode can arise when getting excited about and sharing concepts without engaging with their deeper essence or meaning.

We might call this a two-dimensional understanding.

This plane is peer driven and culturally shaped. Many universities, for instance, create campuses that resemble elite institutions in appearance, but lack deeper institutional similarities (for example, Cambridge and Oxford emphasize formal dinners in order to cultivate intellectually grounded social cohesion).

3. Muse

Multi-dimensional, the Muse plane represents profound curiosity, and is fueled by a desire to ask deep questions and to connect disparate ideas.

This plane is characterized by a desire to push beyond familiar dimensions into the frontiers.

The Muse Plane represents innovation, leadership, and the ability to create something new. Brian Eno began creating innovative music in the 70s, it took some time for the general public to really feel the influence of Brian Eno’s works. For instance, he composed the Windows 95 Startup Sound and part of the soundtrack for the film Trainspotting.

Our capacity for all three modes: Impulse, Notion and Muse have an evolutionary explanation: impulse responses are key in response to danger, notions help build and maintain social cohesion and muses extend the possible. We all inhabit all three planes, possibly with different frequencies.

With this in mind, let’s explore each of these modes of response to stimulus further with demonstrative examples.

Impulses provide basic reactions to run from the predator (fear) and to eat the food (reward seeking); these our fast twitch emotional muscles.

“I’m so upset by this article’s title that I’m going to share it without reading the post!” — a reactive Impulse.

Notion is about social cohesion and establishing peer-ship (through share notions) is an important part of societies cohesion protocol, and finally

“Video games are the new Hollywood, and will replace it in 10 years!” — is a Notion.

Muse is our social and cultural mutagen— muse behaviors are about playfullness, innovation and exploration. We cannot have everyone doing this at the same time, we would get decoherence!

“I love video games, want a career in the industry, and have concrete goals to advance in it — I wonder what it would be like to make a game where speed works differently?

This kind of thinking, over the next decade, might lead to the next hit game. But the intention is not to create the next hit game. It is to look at things in a different way and explore those ideas over time. It’s often difficult to find the kinds of people that are interested

Common Reactions to Artifical Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence(AI) is a term that has experienced many boom/bust cycles in the 67+ years since it was coined. Here are some typical examples of Impulse responses to AI:

Driven by Impulse, it’s easy to react to the most terrifying scenarios — especially if they’ve already been depicted in popular culture. Notably, many AI alarmists and evangelists promote the technology by evoking an Impulse reaction, describing it in apocalyptic or revolutionary terms, respectively.

A Notional response to AI is common among people in business — particularly if they have little hands on experience with the technology, and so respond superficially to buzz around the topic.

Notions about AI are also pretty easy to identify. “Adding AI to our startup will help us get ahead!” is a Notion we often hear in Silicon Valley. We heard similar statements in the early 2010s.

A Muse approach to AI acknowledges and is excited by uncertainty. You might overhear discussions about new kinds of automation systems resembling:

A Muse response seeks positive and negative possibilities: “Let’s play with AI to see the limits and the advantages of it, and use it like a new tool, alongside our organization! We may encounter the same number of problems as old approaches, but we just don’t know which problems yet. Let’s also consider where AI fits into our ethical and philosophical considerations about what it means to be human.”

Recognizing and Changing your Response Modes

The first step is recognizing when we’re in impulse, notion, or muse states; the second is reflecting on whether this response mode is appropriate for the situation we are in.

We all have a base mode which we slip into when we are stressed. We’re much more likely to be in an Impulse state, prone to lashing out at people or other emotional outbursts. However, once we acknowledge this, its much easier to return to the Notion plane, and to act more sociably.

If you are most comfortable on the Notion plane, you may find yourself getting excited about the work others are doing, wishing you could do it — but not taking any concrete steps required to follow through on your own projects. Many people have said to me, “Wow, you wrote a book, I want to write one too!” As if assuming it’s an exciting thing to do; even more, that it’s a fun thing to do.

A friend and prolific author noted that: “You miss a lot of social time. Dinners, and a lot of the comforts you might have. You’re spending lots and lots of time writing and rewriting. And eventually you get out and you hopefully get the glory of a book signing — 3–4 years later. And up until then, you might be going through a rough time. Second guessing yourself and yet continuing on. You might throw away 100 pages in a few weeks.”

I always tell people, “It’s nice to have written a book”. Having it behind you is great, but the idea that writing one is fun is almost certainly a Notion.

There are two paths. If you really want to take on your own projects, it’s a good idea to work with experienced collaborators who can define concrete and actionable steps towards your vision. On the other hand, if you aren’t serious about a particular project or idea, its probably best to save your energy for something you are really passionate about — for which you are prepared to do the work.

Muse Mode Has Its Challenges Too

It’s possible that filmmaker David Lynch or Studio Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki are always in Muse Mode. They’re always being exactly themselves — even when this works against them. If so, it must have been very hard for them before they became famous. Early on, budget and time constraints almost entirely prevented Lynch from making many of his films, and his parents didn’t understand what he was trying to communicate. I imagine Lynch becoming frustrated that people misunderstood his projects. But instead of giving up, he doubled down.

It’s tough to always be in Muse mode. Pushing into new ideas always comes with difficulties in communication. It will be difficult to engage an audience or collaborators — let alone get funding for them.

As we develop our ideas, we learn to project them into the Notion plane through elevator pitches or other explanations that resonate with a broader audience. I recommend practicing pitching your ideas to friends as an exercise in leaving the Muse state. If you can explain your project in punchy, pithy terms that generate excitement and other immediate emotions in others, it will not only make your project more viable — it will also maintain your own excitement to complete it.

Knowing when to Listen to Your Impulses

Up to this point, it might seem like Impluses are all bad. However, sometimes when we keep experiencing an Impulse, it’s a sign of a deeper need. It has been my experience that when I am randomly browsing the web, I am seeking to be inspired.

These ideas originated a time when I was feeling depressed; I needed to connect with someone experiencing the same feelings. Thankfully, my own random web browsing led to Amy King’s comic. I don’t even recall how I found it, but I do know my Impulse was trying to tell me something. In the end, I found an idea that really resonated.

Amy King, author and illustrator of The Muse Mentor, has a comic online and will be restoring the whole thing soon(ish). She’s a wonderful person and I’m so glad she brought this comic to life.

Thanks to Michael Zargham for reviewing this post as well as helping ideate this into a fun framework for understanding human reactions!

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Amber Case

Design advocate, speaker and author of Calm Technology. Former Research Fellow at MIT Media Lab and Harvard BKC.